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Ebola: Rethinking Security

By Dr. Patricia Campbell
Assistant Provost of Graduate Studies, Research, and Innovation at  American Public University System

Ebola is more than a potential pandemic; it is a prime example of the importance of viewing “security” much more broadly than traditional definitions, which have focused on power, military might, and defensive and offensive capabilities.

Human security pushes us to envision security as much more complicated and interconnected. As Derek S. Reveron and Kathleen A. Mahoney-Norris describe in their book Human Security in a Borderless World, this more nuanced understanding of security requires we focus on issues of “globalization, climate change, pandemic diseases, endemic poverty, weak and failing states, transnational narcotics trafficking, piracy and vulnerable information systems.”

If we begin from this understanding of security, what is happening in West Africa with Ebola comes into sharp relief. Here we will explore just two aspects of human security in the context of the Ebola outbreak.

First, there is a lack of a cohesive, functioning government in most of these countries. These failing or fragile states struggle with day-to-day existence even without a crisis. The most recent outbreaks in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have spread into urban areas where one might expect more government control. However, due to the barely functioning nature of these states, the governments’ responses have ranged from completely absent to delayed to incredibly heavy-handed in the form of a military imposed quarantine that left thousands of citizens trapped within a cordoned off area without food, access to health care, or any way for the healthy to separate themselves from the sick. These states are completely unprepared for—and overwhelmed by—the magnitude of the disease.

Second, the disease corridors created by deforestation and mining, both a response to global market imperatives and to externally imposed neo-liberal economic policies, have allowed the Ebola virus to spread more easily. For example, fruit bats that inhabit the forests and carry Ebola have come into increasing contact with humans as deforestation has eradicated their habitat. Extensive mining has also contributed to the spread of the disease, as miners travel into what is left of a rapidly-dwindling forest to access the minerals, thereby exposing themselves to the bats.

Ebola is ravaging the poorest countries with the most dilapidated or non-existent infrastructures. These West African countries emerged from the scourge of colonialism, only to be sucked into the Cold War chess game, which helped prop up notorious dictators whose repressive regimes pillaged the countries’ resources. Violent conflict has characterized the region since. The various power vacuums, ongoing violence, collapsed economies, and vicious struggles for natural resources have all contributed to the perfect storm that has allowed this disease to flourish. As the disease has overwhelmed these governments and their health systems, their militaries have proven to be of little to no use and non-state actors have stepped in to fill the void.

In short, to understand what is happening right now in West Africa, one needs to understand globalization and the human security issues that are embedded within this crisis. The importance of grasping this was highlighted in a recent Guardian piece, which noted:

“The bottom line is that there is no public health without environmental health. Deforestation didn’t cause this Ebola epidemic, but did make it much more likely. The region’s legacy of war and poverty, its beleaguered health care systems, and a series of bureaucratic fumbles fanned a small and isolated outbreak into a full-blown epidemic fire, which has already killed more people than all previous 25 known Ebola outbreaks put together.

“It is shocking to realize that a tiny virus with just a handful of genes can fracture families, shred communities, destroy national economies and destabilize whole regions in just a matter of months. But this is what we are witnessing with Ebola.”

About the Author:
Dr. Patricia Campbell is the Assistant Provost of Graduate Studies, Research, and Innovation at American Public University System. She received her Ph.D. from the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Dr. Campbell has numerous publications in academic journals including Journal of Political Science Education, International Feminist Journal of Politics, African Studies Quarterly, Politics and Policy; and Africa Today. Her co-authored textbook on Global Studies was published in 2010 (Wiley-Blackwell).

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